Listening with the Ear of the Heart

The first sentence of the prologue of St Benedict to his Rule begins

Obsculta, o fili, pracepta magistri et inclina aurem cordis tui . . .
Listen carefully, my son, to the teaching of the master and bend close the ear of your heart
. . .

These words have invited much reflection on what it means truly to listen and the relationship that exists between master and disciple. Every modern commentator is keen to draw attention to the meaning of obsculta. There is nothing casual or half-hearted about this kind of listening. It requires close attention, hard work, care. It means more than just absorbing words. It must embrace nuance, intention, and the subtleties that can easily escape us today, when we are used to scanning at high speed or rushing to add our own contribution before we have fully grasped the meaning of what we have just heard. It is one reason why the monastic practice of lectio divina is so demanding. We have to surrender to the word of God, allow it to master us, change us — and most of us object to that. We are too full of our own noise to listen properly.

The phrase inclina aurem cordis tui is important for understanding both the scope and the intention of the listening to which we are exhorted. In themselves, the words are unremarkable, an ecclesiastical commonplace, but when Benedict uses them, I think he is reminding us that the heart is the place where we meet God. He is not a theorist, in the way that some are. He is immensely practical and his spirituality, if we may call it that, is based on experience. It is experience of God that prompts him to write, and that he seeks to foster in his monks. Our listening therefore has a purpose that goes beyond the words themselves to the purpose of our monastic life as a whole: to seek and find God. If you look at the next few chapters of the Rule, you will see that Benedict refers quite often to the heart. That may be, as some have argued, in contradistinction to the Master but the effect is to reinforce this sense of purpose.

Beloved of Benedictines though the opening words of the prologue are, we have to admit that they fit into a well-known genre of wisdom literature, such as we find in the Bible or some of the early monastic documents, e.g. Pseudo-Basil. Familiarity with them has probably deadened us to the realisation that Benedict’s choice of words is unusual for him. Although the wisdom tradition of the Bible often uses filial language in such contexts, Benedict doesn’t. In fact, there is only one other place where he refers to the monk as filius (RB 2.29). There is no paternalism here. The master-disciple relationship is characterised as loving, but the fatherly advice (admonitionem pii patris) that Benedict gives is of a different order from that of the Rule of the Master on which much of the prologue is based. So, why does he use such language here? My own guess is that he simply wants to make an impact, make us listen, because what he wants to say in the Rule is of such importance.

The earnestness of Benedict’s opening address is sometimes overlooked by those who have never actually tried to live according to the Rule in community. It is possible to be lulled into a false sense of how beautiful it all is. It is beautiful, yes; but it is beautiful because it is true and because it is intended to lead us further along the way. It will not be long before Benedict is talking about obedience and participation in the sufferings of Christ, and if we are to do that, we must make a huge effort now to learn how to listen.